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Thursday, July 09, 2009

NT Wrong interview with Frances Flannery

Thanks to NTW for this:


Interview between NTWrong and Frances Flannery, founder of Golem: Journal of Religion and Monsters http://www.golemjournal.org/ June 2009.

Q. First up - I see the Journal's last issue is from Spring 2007. Is it still a going concern?

Frances Flannery: We just came out with Issue Three (Spring 2009). As you can see, the quality is extremely high. The issue is very interesting and focused on the issue of monsters and “Otherness,” especially as it relates to disability, immigrants, and post 9-11 trauma. We did take longer between Issues Two and Three than we were expecting, for several reasons, including handing over the Senior Editorship to Rubina Ramji of Cape Breton University. She has proven to be an exceptional leader and I think the wait was well worth it!

Q. Why monsters? What is your personal and/or professional interest in monsters?

FF: My research specialty is in ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, which is of course rife with monsters. I began thinking about them as culturally specific symbols, especially with respect to chaos and the transgression of categories. When I examined anthropological sources across an extremely broad band of cultures, whether modern Asia, Polynesia, or Europe, or ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, I found monsters in every single culture I ran across! How very interesting! I realized that if monsters do exist in every culture, they must serve a VITALLY important social function. To figure out that function, I needed to understand what Dracula, Frankenstein, Cyclops, Godzilla, The Dragon from Revelation, Big Foot and zombies have in common.

As it turns out, many scholars have considered the definition of monsters, and there is even a field of “monster study,” called teratology. I finally settled on a definition of monsters as those socially constructed entities that either blur existing categories or that must exist between categories, where nothing else fits. For instance, Frankenstein is both living and dead, and Big Foot is only scary if he is both Human-like and Ape-like. A giant lowland gorilla species would frighten no one! In turn, this definition implies that the function of monsters is exactly, then, 1) to allow a culture to express what category formations are important to it, 2) what boundaries are currently being challenged, and 3) thereby to express societal fears about these boundary crossings, usually as a catharsis. Godzilla, as an ancient creature awakened by atomic energy, expressed the fears of Post WWII Japan and America in the nuclear age. Monsters are thus vital to the mental health of a culture, and keys to what a culture values. With Clifford Geertz, I consider religion to be a cultural system. Hence, monsters must be crucially important to understanding religion.

Q. Why did you choose such a topic for a new journal?

FF: I started GOLEM after teaching an upper-level course at Hendrix College in Conway, AR on “Religion and Monsters,” a course I will also teach at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. The course employed a variety of methodologies and definitions of monsters, drawn from anthropology of religion, religious studies, ritual studies, and aesthetics. I knew immediately that the course would have “buzz” around it, that students would be intrigued with the topic right off the bat. Of course it over-enrolled, because monsters are cool! But I never realized that the course would generate the most sophisticated thinking from my students that I had encountered. In addition, it stimulated my own thinking in ways that made me look at my own research topics - apocalypticism, mysticism and terrorism - in a completely new light. I wanted to create a forum for others, from a variety of humanities and art related disciplines, to think about monsters and their significance in various contexts. The journal is especially committed to interdisciplinary methodologies that result in a broad range of topics for investigation. So far GOLEM has generated articles, to name a few, on monsters and otherness, disability, the construction of normalcy, horror films, posthumanism, ecological devastation, class, ethnicity, the Ancient Near East, and Christian Evangelicalism and intelligent design. And there are so many more interesting avenues to explore!

Q. If somebody is interested in writing for the journal, are there any future topics planned, and/or does the journal accept general-purpose articles at any time?

FF: We do accept general-purpose, scholarly articles at any point, and articles are judged in a peer-reviewed editorial process for acceptance. An article must have a clear methodology in order to receive a positive review, but the topics of research may be widely ranging. At present, I know that the journal editors are especially keen on the topics of monsters as they related to terrorism and symbols of ethnic groups, because that issue is so germane to our contemporary global situation.

Also, I would add that we are eager to get the word out about “GREMLIN,” a place in the GOLEM journal for undergraduate publishing on the topic of religion and monsters.

Q. Thanks in advance, and please feel free to add any comments about GOLEM that you wish to make known.

FF: If you have room, I’d like to mention a few of my favorite books on religion and monsters as a way of stimulating some of your readers to write submissions for GOLEM. You could reprint the bibliographic information alone, or include my short descriptions. Thank you so much! }

I think your readers would enjoy the following works to stimulate their own investigations of religion and monsters:

Beal, Timothy K. Religion and Its Monsters. New York : Routledge, 2002. ISBN: 0415925886. Beal’s book is an insightful, wide-ranging account of monsters in a variety of religious contexts and media, including: the ancient Near East, Bible, rabbinic tradition, orientalism, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Stoker’s Dracula, Rowling’s Harry Potter, Murnau’s Nosferatu, Lang’s Metropolis and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.

Byron, Gay L. Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature. New York : Routledge, 2002. ISBN: 0415243696. Byron astutely reappraises the symbolic use of “Egypt/ Egyptians,” “Ethiopia/Ethiopians,” and “Blacks/blackness” in early Christian writings and associations made between certain Africans and demons, sexual vices, sin and heresy (5).

Cohen, David, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1996. ISBN: 0816628556. All fourteen articles have something to offer, and many touch directly on issues of religion (e.g. Michael Uebel, “Unthinking the Monster: Twelfth-Century Responses to Saracen Alterity,” 264-291). The case studies include a variety of historical and literary approaches from antiquity to the present day, concentrating especially on the relationship of monsters, body and disabilities (e.g. Allison Pingree, “ America ’s ‘United Siamese Brothers’: Chang and Eng and Nineteenth-Century Ideologies of Democracy and Domesticity,” 92-114; Stephen Pender, “No Monsters at the Resurrection: Inside Some Conjoined Twins,” 143-167).

Gilmore, David D. Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. ISBN: 0812237021. Gilmore succeeds in sketching a comparative and Freudian study of monsters that treats not only “Western” ones, but also examples from indigenous America, Canada, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa.

Girard, Réné. The Scapegoat. Yvonne Freccero, trans. Baltimore , MD : Johns Hopkins University Press, reprinted in 1989. ISBN: 0801839173. Girard uses the Christ myth as the paradigmatic example of the scapegoat, a symbolic target for collective fear and aggression. He claims that most societies are actually based on the ritual sacrifice of some victimized, marginalized other and offers numerous examples from antiquity to modernity to support his bold thesis. Ultimately, Girard aims to expose the fratricidal tendencies of societies by highlighting the concept of stranger and scapegoat, which carry religio-philosophical implications. In this sense, his work has influenced several scholars who research societal and ritual monsters.

Graham, Elaine L. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick , N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 2002. ISBN: 0813531598. As the title indicates, Graham is interested in exploring ongoing shifts in human identity in light of recent technology, bio-medicine and cybernetics. To accomplish this, she explores two surprisingly complementary narrative sites, science and popular culture.

Harpham, Geoffrey G. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton , N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1982. ISBN: 0691102171. This earlier work has been influential in monster research across disciplines since Harpham uses an eclectic approach drawn from art history, literature, religious studies and psychology to focus on “the grotesque.”

Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods and Monsters. New York : Routledge, 2003. ISBN: 0415272580. This philosophical approach to monsters places them in a wider context of many beings of alterity and borderline experience, including divinities, making for an interesting reflection on religion and monsters. Kearney comments on relevant reflections by a host of philosophers and theologians, including: Kant, Hegel, Marx, Levinas, Derrida, Caputo, Kristeva, Lyotard and particularly Heidegger and Girard. Kearney ’s case studies derive mostly from “Western tradition”: Jewish and Christian history, UFOlogy, Shakespeare and Joyce, Euro-American politics of terror and Platonic and psychoanalytical interpretations of khora.

Kiej’e, Nikolas. Japanese Grostesqueries. Text by Terence Barrow. Rutland , VT : Charles E. Tuttle, 1973. ISBN: 080480656X. I love this book! Kiej’e has compiled a valuable visual collection of Japanese examples of the grotesque, monstrous figures that range from female ghosts to male ogres. In addition to the stunning woodcuts, prints and other visual media, there is also an informative article by Barrow, “Ghosts, Ghost-Gods, and Demons of Japan” (7-28).

Law, John. A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. New York : Routledge, 1991. ISBN: 0415071399. Law puts forward a Marxist analysis of “monster” as a symbol of social force, demonstrating that the European literary monster archetype symbolizes capitalism. Indeed, in Das Kapital, Marx himself states, “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

Mode, Heinz. Fabulous Beasts and Demons. New York : Phaidon, 1973. ISBN: 0714816426. This work by Mode, a professor of oriental archaeology, is really a modern bestiary. Employing an archaeological and art history approach to the topic of monsters, it includes over four hundred illustrations covering five thousand years of humanity’s fascination with monsters, organized by type. Mode’s interest is definitely ontology as is clear in his definition of “monster”: “a new shape resulting from a combination . . . of characteristic components or properties of different kinds of living things or natural objects . . . it does not occur in nature, but belongs solely to the realm of the human imagination . . . a new type capable of life in art and in the imagination” (7).

Strickland, Debra Higgs. Saracens, Demons & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-691-05719-2. Strickland’s excellent offering is a focused and complete iconographic investigation of medieval bestiaries and other art, which evince a deep and polemical fascination with non-Christian “monsters”: Jews, Muslims, Mongols and imaginary mutants from far-flung regions. The work includes crisp images and color plates of surprising images, as well as a cogent, thorough analysis by Strickland.

Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York : Routledge, 2nd ed. 2001. ISBN: 0415928125. Also: The Plague of Fantasies. London : Verso, 1997. ISBN: 1859841937. Žižek deserves a mention for his varied philosophical and social reflections on the monstrous sublime. In Enjoy Your Symptom! he asserts that the postmodern world is fascinated with “the Thing, with a foreign body in a social texture” (123), which he explores in film and culture. In other words, Žižek postulates that monsters are self-fulfilling prophecies of (post)modernity. In Plague of Fantasies, he comments on everything from national differences in toilet design to Schumann to argue that critical thought should work towards the abstract. Most helpful for our purposes is the way in which Žižek’s philosophy presses to the extreme earlier reflections on the sublime (see Jean-Francois Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, 1994), claiming that that diabolical Evil and Good are the same, given “the monstrosity of a crazy, sadistic God” (229).

16 Comments:

Blogger Leon said...

One of the most interesting questions to ask about monsters is: What are the real-life monsters that fictional monsters are meant to represent? It's a question a lot of people ask. There is pobably more than one answer to the question. Apart from the violent monsters that inhabit our world, is there anything more monstrous than an academic field that suppresses academic freedom and erases the historical evidence of a people's culture? Ghastly.

One of the fears that ancient peoples had was that another culture could come along and wipe out their own history and culture — as if they had never existed. It is so easy to get erased. That could explain some of the monsters in ancient literature and folklore. It is a fear based on real danger.

That danger persists in modern NT scholarship with its penchant to disappear Jewish history of the 1st century and the historical, Jewish Jesus. One could give dozens and hundreds of examples of this. William Arnal's "The Symbolic Jesus" erases everything from Jewish culture except Temple, rituals, and purity concerns. He trivializes and demeans the culture. The lesson is that unrestrained power produces monsters in both the real and fictional worlds.

Am I ratcheting up the rhetoric? Perhaps. What are the powerless to do? It's interesting that we look for mosnters everywhere, over there, somewhere else, but never in some of the nasty things our own academic culture does. But the scariest monsters are those closest to home. Of course, you could just erase this point from your consciousness. But then, that would be monstrous, wouldn't it?

Leon Zitzer

July 22, 2009

 
Blogger pearl said...

It seems this subject recently showed up in a New York Times Op-Ed:

”Why Vampires Never Die” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

August 02, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leon: you should be given an award for bringing in your own hobbyhorse with the most tenuous link! More seriously, Arnal does the exact opposite of what you say. He criticizes scholars for reducing Judaism to Temple, rituals, and purity concerns and argues that Judaism was much more diverse and cannot be reduced so easily. Where on earth do you get this reading of Arnal from?

August 02, 2009

 
Blogger Leon said...

I should know better than to respond to anonymous bloggers which is just a form of cowardice. But Arnal does not do what you say. He only pays lip service to multiplicity in ancient Judaism. If you actually read "The Symbolic Jesus", he repeatedly refers to Temple, rituals, and purity (or some similar combination) as the identifying factors of Judaism. He never — not even once — refers to the fight for constitutionalism, due process, justice, peace, all of which were important parts of Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism. I would give anyone a lot of money for each time Arnal refers to any of these things in "The Symbolic Jesus" — which is never. Moreover, when Arnal does denigrate Judaism into Temple, rituals, and purity, he sometimes uses deprecating adjectives like "obsessive" and "rigid". He never uses such words for Greek culture and he makes it clear that he would like Jesus to be closer to Greek culture than to Jewish. He says so quite explicitly. And I hope this is the last time I will take the time to respond to a coward.

Leon Zitzer

August 03, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are wrong. Re-read Arnal.

Why are you making irrelvant comments?

August 03, 2009

 
Blogger Leon said...

The constant repetition of "Temple, rituals, purity" by Arnal serves a purpose. And this is the only aspect of Judaism that he repeats over and over. He is tapping into his audience's prejudices. He knows most readers will say to themselves, "Thank God, Jesus was not interested in those things. Thank God, he was better than that."

There were many wonderful, good, and spiritual things about 1st century Judaism. Arnal does not mention one of them. Not one. And you cannot produce one. He never even mentions the Pharisees and rabbis. Not once. He has erased them from history. He calls "Temple, rituals, purity" traditional Judaism. What gives him the right to do that? Why isn't "justice, peace, due process" traditional Judaism? They go all the way back to the five books of Moses and they were much emphasized by the Pharisees. But Arnal erases it all without even one bare mention.

He also complains about those who would make Jesus an honorary Jew. "Honorary Jew" is his euphemism for traditionally Jewish or too Jewish or rabbinnically Jewish. Arnal picks on Temple, etc. because they are the most superficial things he can emphasize. Those are the facts of Arnal's book. You have no evidence to counter any of this. Anyone will walk away from Arnal's book with a negative impression of 1st century Judaism. That is his goal — to reinforce prejudice, not remove it.

Leon Zitzer

August 05, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more time Leon, you are just wrong. Arnal attacks scholars for repeating Temple, rituals and purity. That is why he repeates such things. His argument is that Judaism was much more complex and that Jewish identity was anything but fixed. I just do not understand how you are getting this reading of Arnal. Read the book.

August 05, 2009

 
Blogger Leon said...

You see? I was right. It is pointless to respond to a coward. All a coward has to say is "you are wrong" and offer no evidence. Arnal is not criticizing scholars who repeat Temple, etc. He is supporting them. He has no interest in the real multiplicity of 1st century Judaism. He only uses the idea of multiplicity to drown out the voices of Pharisees and rabbis whom he never even mentions in the book. He drowns out "justice, peace, and due process" by eliminating them from his script. You have no evidence that he gives us any of these insights into Judaism because the evidence is not there. You are clueless about the actual evidence of what Arnal really says. You just avoid it and avoid the evidence I presented.

Leon Zitzer

August 07, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No!! The evidence is Arnal's book as has been pointed out. Leon, you are inventing things. You talk about cowards etc but you invent what the book is about. READ THE BOOK! It actually agrees with what you are saying and so I am not convinced you have bothered to read it.

August 07, 2009

 
Blogger Leon said...

For those who really care about evidence (and someone like this might actually be trolling the Internet), I will add this: The only thing Arnal really criticizes is anyone who associates Jesus with Temple, etc. He is absolutely opposed to seeing Jesus this way. That's why he cannot stop repeating Temple, etc. and why he characterizes this kind of Judaism with negative words such as obsessive and rigid. If Jesus is allowed to become this kind of Jew, then, Arnal argues, Jesus too will become obsessive and rigid.

Arnal is not seriously interested in multiple Judaisms. If he were, he would mention the Judaism of peace, justice, and due process. He never does. He would mention the rich storytelling Judaism. He never does. He is interested in presenting only a negative image of Judaism. You, dear reader who might actually care about evidence, will notice that Mr. Anonymous never gives any evidence that Arnal mentions or discusses the Judaism of due process, etc. and of wonderful, spiritual stories. That's because there is no such evidence in Arnal's book. Mr. Anonymous has no evidence for anything. He has no familiarity with Arnal's book. He just shouts in an uncouth manner. Read the book and you will see. And look for that moment when Arnal's horror of Jesus' Jewishness expresses itself in his complaint about those who would make Jesus an honorary Jew. It is really fascinating.

Leon Zitzer

August 08, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are crazy Leon. I do not believe you have read Arnal and you do not care about reading the evidence closely, if at all. Henceforth I will cease to respond to you.

August 15, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And you have, as usual, taken the discussion entirely off topic to suit your own hobby horse. Madness.

August 15, 2009

 
Blogger Leon said...

He proves my point again. He never offers a stitch of evidence to disprove anything I have pointed out about Arnal's book. The falsehoods that people propagate about academic scholarship are astonishing, to say the least.

August 15, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, Leon, indeed. Look in the mirror.

August 17, 2009

 
Blogger Leon said...

Now I better understand why people blog or respond on blogs anonymously: To hide from the shame of their actions and comments. All they do is dish out insult, abuse, rhetoric, epithets, and that classic comment "Oh yeah? Well, the same to you." The one thing they never do is deliver any evidence.

August 22, 2009

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who are "they" in more precise terms? I hope you are not inventing things again. Leon, Leon, evidence here is Arnal's book and that has been referred to. You invent what Arnal says and accuse others with no evidence or argument. Those with a proper background in philosophy and science will understand how awful your arguing is.

August 24, 2009

 

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